Withholding Communion: Compassion, Not Punishment

Recently, Steven Colbert talked about the U.S. Catholic bishops denying communion to Catholic politicians as “punishment.”  Many recent headlines use the word “denying” in reference to the U.S. Catholic Bishops, communion, and Catholic politicians supporting issues that go against Church teachings, namely abortion rights. Perhaps a better word is “withholding.”  Withholding communion is a most compassionate act and showers these politicians with the utmost pastoral care and provides them the opportunity to model exemplary leadership.  Likewise, withholding communion demonstrates true pastoral concern on the part of pastors, priests, and bishops.

As Christians, we are called to live out our faith in every facet of our lives.  We are also called to go and make disciples of all nations; that is, we are called to evangelize no matter what our state or position in life.  Regular prayer and reflection help us to root out those areas where we are not allowing our faith to permeate. Our pastors, priests, and bishops accompany and guide us on that journey.

We have politicians who publicly profess their Catholic faith and at the same time, publicly profess their support for abortion rights because they don’t want to “impose” their faith on others.  As public leaders, the message they communicate to their fellow believers, as well as to all their constituents, is that our faith and convictions must be kept to ourselves, that these are not to inform our public decisions for the good of society.  These same politicians then go to Mass, receive Communion, and all is well, except, it’s not.

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, states “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.  For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11: 28-29).  It seems that pastors, priests, and bishops have been turning a blind eye for too long and allowing these men and women to receive judgment on their souls and influence others to do the same, thereby also reflecting poorly on them.  “If anyone causes one of these little ones, those who believe in me, to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18: 6).

Imagine someone, a child or adult, riding a bike.  To bring it to a stop, the person rams it against a wall, tree, or some other obstacle and ends up skinning an elbow or a knee.  Now imagine that this person keeps doing this over and over because they don’t know about the brakes, and the injuries keep coming.  Would you stand by as they continue hurting themselves and potentially others because you don’t want to interfere with their way of doing things, or you don’t want to hurt their feelings?  Or would you tell them about the brakes and encourage them to use them? Better yet, would you offer to teach them to use the brakes?

A good leader would.  Faithful pastors, priests, and bishops would.  They might suggest you get off your bike for a while or even withhold it from you, so you can learn about these brakes and have some time to contemplate the benefits of using them for yourself and for others.  They would guide you, advise you on how to properly use that bike to get you to your destination. Keeping you off it for a while, withholding communion, would give you time to heal and to further reflect on the truth to make the right choices, rather than let you keep on receiving judgment against yourself, rather than standing by watching you hurt yourself over and over.

This is what the U.S. Catholic bishops are trying to do, and these politicians would do well to fully embrace this opportunity.  The bishops are not withholding from any of them the ability or the right to attend Mass and participate and pray in both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the two main parts of the Mass.  They would only be keeping them off the “bike” for a while providing the opportunity to reflect, learn and properly act on the convictions of their faith.  Our Catholic politicians could set the example for the rest of us and refrain from going to Communion instead of scoffing at their pastors, daring them to withhold Communion, and even demanding it as some sort of right.

Much has already been written about the U.S. bishops potentially withholding communion to Catholic politicians supporting abortion rights, analyzing different angles from which to look at this.  Looking at it as an act of compassion forces us to reflect deeply on our own faith and our actions in daily life.  True compassion can hurt as we grapple with ourselves.  President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Representative Lieu are gifted with an excellent opportunity here; they publicly declare their faith, they publicly support issues that are contrary to their Christian faith, now they can publicly accept their pastors’ withholding of communion and publicly demonstrate mature reflection and growth.  They could demonstrate true leadership and concern for the public.  Do they have the courage to do so? Do we?

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